Window to Europe

In Moscow, June 1672, a Tzar was born with a vision. He was unusually tall, bright, clean shaven, non-religious and kept his eyes to the West.

He dared to challenge traditions, domestic structure and the modus operandi of Medieval Russia, advancing it to be the new powerful kid on the block. He led a massive cultural revolution by cutting beards, opening math and engineering schools, encouraging youth to travel abroad, forcing French fashion on his court, and introducing potatoes (ha!) to Russian cuisine. He moved New Year’s day from September to January 1st and adopted the German custom of decorating Christmas trees. Believe it or not, he was also the father of Russian ballet. Sound like a lot? Well, he could also twist and roll silver plates and assemble anything ranging from kid’s chairs to real warships. He topped it all when in 1703 he chose the site and laid the foundation stone for the new capital of New Russia, Saint Petersburg, which he believed was and forever would be the”window to Europe”. Long Live Peter the Great!

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St. Petersburg in 1720 by J. Homann

The legend says that when Tzar Peter and his entourage scouted islands in the Neva river delta for a perfect location (or a fancy sunset view), an eagle appeared right above them and that’s how it started. Well, superstition runs deep in Russian DNA 🙂

Modern St. Petersburg consists of 101 islands, it’s the largest, youngest European city with the most number of bridges and a confident promise to amaze. Today follow me on a tour of Peter’s city…

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We’ll start across the Neva river and the Winter Palace on Zayachay (Hare) Island at Peter and Paul Fortress. It was built as a bastion to counterattack Swedes, but soon turned into the “Russian Bastille”, where prince Alexey (Peter’s son) conspired against reforms and was interrogated and imprisoned. While still fresh and eager, climb up the Bell Tower, the second tallest local structure to discover its tragic past (a victim of several fires caused by lightining) and a panoramic view from 42m platform. Then enter the Peter and Paul Cathedral, the eternal home of Romanov family, and the oldest church in the city. It was built in stunning early Baroque style, greatly influenced by Western Europe. Its interiors were decorated with golden ornaments, icons and bible-themed paintings. On the way out, look up to spot the famous angel weather-vane on the golden spire.

Continue your walk along the walls of Peter and Paul Fortress, take panoramic photos of the historical center on the other side of Neva river and then turn to Petrovskaya embarkment to visit the first residential house, a little cottage built for Peter himself in record 3 days, Cabin of the Peter the Great. Protected from the harsh weather by the pavilion, it was originally assembled in traditional Russian log cabin style (izba) with large windows and a high roof. Interestingly, its exteriors were painted to imitate a brick pattern as Tzar was building a city of stone on a limited budget.  The interiors were simple, practical and decorated with essentials only.

Photo credit St. Petersburg’s card

Our next stop is the opposite of practical. It was one of the fist luxuries, proudly designed for the eyes and soul by the Tzar himself and with his active involvement (he loved to be a part of all his projects). So cross the Troitskiy (Trinity) bridge to take a romantic stroll down the alleys in the Summer Garden. Yes, it was laid out as an entertainment park filled with early 18th century urban luxury trends – strict geometric principales, trimmed trees, swans, rare plants, sparkling fountains and marble statues. The river that supplied water to feed its fountains was eventually called Fontanka. Through its history, the Summer Garden has witnessed secret rendez-vous, powerful celebrities, assassination attempt, love scandals and impressive fireworks to end imperial ball. Sadly, most of the marble statues (except one) were replaced with copies during the latest restoration. Keep an eye for the Peace and Victory statue, it’s the only original left.

Now it’s time for “I spy with my little eye”. Turn around and find another golden spire with a weather vane in the form of a little ship shining high in the sky (or use Google maps). It’s the Admiralty tower strategically located on the Neva River in close proximity of Peter and Paul fortresses canons, so it could be easily destroyed if overtaken by enemies. The Admiralty at first was functioning as a shipyard to build the new Russian Baltic fleet and to support Peter’s Imperial ambitions (produced 262 warships).  Peter himself was seen over there working hard as a craftsman on docks. Today the Admiralty is one of most recognizable symbols of the city and a starting point of 3 main avenues. One of them is Nevsky prospect.

It’s impossible to visit St. Petersburg and miss the Nevsky’s. It’s a happening place, the hub of entertainment and nightlife, one of the best-known streets in Russia and a history itself. Around 2 million people walk up and down it every day (pickpockets too, beware!). Nevsky is lined with fancy shops, restaurants and the most impressive buildings in St. Petersburg, including Kazan Cathedral, Singer House, the Passage Mall and Anichkov Bridge across Fontanka River. Stop over here for a water adventure that will take you on a tour of bridges and water canals to discover St. Petersburg from a different angle.

Our next stop is Menshikov’s Palace located right in front of the Admiralty. It was built for a childhood friend of Peter the Great, his supporter and later the first governor, Aleksander Menshikov (not of noble origin but promoted to Duke by the Tzar). Being the first stone residential building in the city and a magnificent structure featuring a rare mix of Baroque style with traditional Russian architecture, the palace was often used for official receptions, balls and carnivals. Rich interiors were decorated with silk, gold, Dutch tiles and marble. The legend says that many of the guest were frightened to step on unusual looking 3D parquet designed by Peter himself and kept their feet up while seated.

If it happened that the eagle responsible for Tzar’s decision flew through time, this is how amazed it would be by the beauty of this eternal city (watch the aerial video)

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Photo and video credit: TimeLab Pro

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Honest Ads

The era of Mad Men continues in the digital age. Where there’s a space, there’s a temptation to use it; emptiness is irresistible. I walked the streets of Toronto and further with Mr. Goose to discover the meaning of life hidden behind letters and images in posted advertisements. Accompanied by the spirit of Nietzsche, Mo Di, Tolstoy, Einstein and the cast of Mothy Python, we are about to add our deep voices to the choir of philosophical marketing. Enjoy!

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… but no thyme to chill! Spotted in the front patio, The Drake Hotel.

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… look who’s got no socks = no life at all. Just another pharmacy downtown.

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… clothed reptiles permitted. Thanks Uncle Tetsu!

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… Actimel needs to stay a lot stronger (35%+) to get me through this! High Park subway station

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… Hurry! Honest Ed’s is about to turn into condos.

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… talking about thunders, eh? Cafe on Yonge

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…can’t wait to try it all! Chinatown.

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…Psycho Reader, the aborted Hitchcock sequel. Just another place on Yonge.

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… it’s true, thought a modest spider on the wall and blushed. Diesel store, Yorkville.

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… this place sucks!

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Does Yoga mean the same thing in Canada as the rest of the world? This place rocks!

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…are you kidding me?!? Only bad vodka is made from potatoes.

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… craft beer and hipsters. Somewhere around King St W

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Wild Wild North

Do you love the countryside? Imagine waking up to the soft sound of trees brushing, and leaves and waves sparkling in the sunshine. Then a cheeky squirrel gently taps on a window looking for a treat, or a friendly beaver waves his tail as a greeting. Picture freshly baked pastry paired with freshly brewed coffee, a wooden dock spread across crystal waters, a long awaited book by O’Henry and a loop of beautiful warm days…

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Knock-knock-knock – it’s reality: morning temperature in June on Manitoulin Island ranges from +4C-16C (if you are lucky), with the hottest +20C, high risk of rain and thunderstorms. When the weather locks you indoors, another round of pleasant surprises is awaiting – your cottage originally built in the 1910’s as a log cabin lacks every comfort that a city girl is so accustomed to: central heating, hot water, internet (forget Netflix), showers and a Nespresso coffee-maker! “No problem, let’s go for a drive” they say, though the closest restaurant is 37 km away and so is the closest supermarket – well, welcome, to the Wild Wild North.

There is something very Canadian about heading up north to survive through their vacation. It took me a while (a bottle of Ontario produced Riesling to be precise) to comprehend the fun behind jumping in a lake in June when it stayed frozen until the mid of May. The “now or never” motto applies to every aspect of the short Canadian summer experience.

I choose to discourage any boring anthropological, logical or any other sorts of statistics in favour of deep psychological analysis driven by Sigmund Freud to understand the truth, the pain and the joy of Canadian summer cottage lifestyle from dawn to dusk. There is always the possibility that the majority of Canadian population lives in the south of the country, spread across the border with US, so geographically two options are open – traveling to US (South) or up north (the rest of Canada). Here is the top 10:

  1. Summer is really short (obviously). It may accidently start any time from April to June or never start at all. For two summers in a row, 2013-2014, I experienced the worst weather possible with cold gloomy days, minimum sunshine, but generous daily showers. In fairness or in unfairness, the situation had improved just right after my departure. In their turn, Canadians are well aware of their moody climate and well prepared to cherish every bit of sunshine, so for them, cities are where one works during the year and cottages are meant for summer chill-outs (chill-out is a key word).
  1. Cities, think Toronto, Montreal or Vancouver, get intolerably sweaty when the weather stays warm for a couple of days. Last July, Vancouver was surrounded to forest fires, balding lawns and big-tummy shirtless guys. Heat (and not-so-handsome shirtless guys) is a lot easier to tolerate in the shadows of tool-sheds, boathouses, oaks and wild cottage shrubs.
  1. Canadians love to hide away from hipsters (and hipsters from their fellow-hipsters), in order to not being judged for dressing super casual (or not casual enough), or wearing the same shorts for 2 weeks (as tried and tested at City Chick Gone Wild).
  1. Big city folks are used to squeezing into clustered spaces on subways, the office, streetcars, condos, detached houses, family vans or other places where functionality prevails. The find it super exotic to be out in beautiful nature, with affordable room and space just after an hour drive within Canada (they are patriots).
  1. The Wild Wild North is Wild! Yes, it’s a sense of danger in the most protected way through the luxury of locked doors and windows that appeals to sweet Canadian souls. Encounters with bears, snakes, foxes, wolves, deer and turtles are slightly exaggerated and passed in a form of a “knight’s tale” from generation to generation. Select Canadians of above-average toughness escape to remote locations to voluntarily deprive themselves from using electricity, running water, WiFi and technologies in favour of candle-lit dinners and physical labour. Well, the first hot shower back in the city turns out to be the sweetest thing ever (the dream!).
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Photo credit Mark M.

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  1. Physical labour. Well, Canadians enjoy physical labour with great enthusiasm. The next day after arrival at the cottage they start walking around looking for the stuff to fix, wood to split, trees to chop and picnic tables to build.
  1. Living and re-living Canadian stereotypes. Morning starts with blueberry pancakes soaked in Maple syrup, side bacon from St. Lawrence Market or from a gourmet store on Bloor. Beef sliders for lunch are prepared on the BBQ and eaten right before a trip to the beach where boats are sailed, rowed, motored and remote controlled. Caesars (have you tried? They involve clams) are stirred, not shaken around 5 o’clock. Crunchy celery stir sticks trick the mind into believe that this super Canadian cocktail is healthy. Then there is cold beer, chilled beer and more beer leading to dinner cooked on a campfire.
  1. Campfire! Hooray! The campfire is a ritual. Unlike in Dubai, buying wood to build one is considered a waste. Driftwood is collected right on site, carefully sorted into categories and then neatly arranged into a Tepee shaped pyramid. Dinner is cooked at the sunset; baked potatoes and sausages are followed by my favourite treat: s’mores (slightly burnt marshmallows pressed between butter cookies with a chunk of milk chocolate). The evening ends with sparkles and star gazing (Manitoulin Island is one of the few places where milky way is shining in its full glory)

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  1. Socializing – letting kids run freely, meeting childhood friends, lending and borrowing tools from neighbours, sipping cocktails on the dock, playing real table games (Monopoly, cards, spoons, etc.) and having long heartily chats after midnight. One would be surprised what the lack of Internet does to good people. Cottages are perfect for family re-unions too. Summer tends to bring the best team-oriented behaviour and drinks served in the early afternoon encourage good humour and an attitude of cooperation.
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Meet Mark, a super-skilled cottage neighbor who  knows the secrets to cooking the best fried fish on the planet Earth, and to taking the closest close-ups of wild bears
  1. Last, but not the least, is the healthy component of any cottage adventure – discovery walks, cycling to the grocery store, hiking the trails, swimming in a refreshingly freezing water, outdoor showers, simple food, lots of vegetables, fruits and vitamin D – so when the vacation is over, Canadians are glowing with happiness and sun kissed skin. Even their well known irony is replaced by simply funny jokes: “Guess what’s brown and sticky? – A stick!”. “What are 2 seasons in Canada? – “Winter and July”.

Speaking frankly, the Wild Wild North is not meant for everyone though, only the bravest hearts. Being there is a lifestyle adventure that takes a few summers to figure out and another few to fall in love with. So it happens that one day at the end of June you will wake up to the sound of a racoon pressing its teethies against your window for a better lick of fish flies off the glass, while a merciless north wind bashes waves onshore and the outdoor temperature lowers to +8C. You say, “good morning world!” and actually mean it.

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P.S. A group of great people have dedicated their time and humor to help me to write and review this post. Thank you Judy, Tom, Angie, Andrew, Mark and Sander.

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My Big Ontario Affair

In an attempt to uncover the mystery behind Canadian migration up north to cottage country every spring/summer, I decided to trace their movements right from the beginning. My trip from Toronto to Manitoulin Island started around 6am with a light breakfast, extra strong black coffee, last minute packing (think chain-saw parts, propane cylinders and a fur coat – out of a looong list) and setting Google Maps for the road ahead. And what a road! A scenic four hour drive is followed by two breezy hours on the MS Chi-Cheemaun, the legendary ferry that connects Manitoulin Island to the Bruce Peninsula since 1930. Total time from Toronto to the cottage – 8 hours.

Speaking of the trip and duration – Canadian roads deserve special praise. They seem to be improving yearly with picnic sites, beautiful scenery and Tim Horton outlets within an hour of one another. Being used to driving on 6 lanes in one direction with a speed limit of 120 km/h (plus 20) in Dubai, it was challenging to adapt to “one lane for all” highway standards where speed will drop from 90 km/h to 50 km/h around small towns. Plus I had to watch out for horse drawn carriages managed by men in black. In Ontario “Adopt a Highway” is a common traffic sign to which people seem to respond rather positively – no garbage, but flowers, greenery, wind turbines and occasional bear jaywalkers greeted me along the road.

Just right after Toronto, I noticed the disappearance of large glass / concrete condominiums. Houses grew bigger, front lawns lusher and households got busier. The further north I went, the more confusing the Canadian accent – all super friendly comments from folks wearing “I love haters” hats were completely lost on me: “Oh hey, eh”. “It’s really weathering outside, eh”. “Got yourself in a kerfuffle? Go talk to Doug”…  I accidently got myself into further trouble by ordering a cup of tea. “Excuse me, a cup of white tea please”. “Sorry, you want it black?” “No, white”. “No double-double, eh?”. “Just white!” “Oh, boy…”

Charming little towns spread along the route casually feature the usual Ontario architecture (churches, clock towers, barns, brick houses) and the two most successful local businesses: gas stations and Tim Hortons (Always Fresh!). I was never a big fan of the latter until I tasted it in Canada. It was a love from the first sip with a dark roast black coffee paired with Maple Pecan Danish. “Tasty, eh?”

A trip on a local celebrity – the MS Chi-Cheemaun, meaning a large canoe, requires a commitment to show up not later than 1 hour (sharp) prior to the departure. Being late, even for a minute as my past experience has proven, results in loosing the reservation and queuing to be boarded on a “first-come first–serve basis” (not a delight, unless you are a fan of Russian roulette). The queue can be long as well as the vehicles in it. Chi-Cheemaun is capable of carrying 638 passengers and 240 vehicles. However, once your reservation fate is locked – it’s time to discover the little port city of Tobermory.

Tobermory is a fun place to explore, just like Dubai. It’s all about entertainment, shopping, food and the joy of a short stay. Start at Foodland for last minute supplies shopping (avocados, crackers, mature cheddar and marshmallows in our case). Continue with crowd watching from the comfort of the Tobermory Brewing Co. and Grill while sipping Russian Imperial Stout beer and spooning Vodka Smoked Salmon Roulade. That place is seriously delicious and should not be missed. On the way to the car, stop to get a scoop of locally made ice cream, fudge and a serving of beaver tail (delicious, beavers like it too).

Sailing the MS Chi-Cheemaun is an adventure in itself. As passengers are not permitted to re-enter cars during the trip, it’s important to carefully select a pile of layers to snuggle into and remember to carry a camera. I was told that a photo with a lighthouse on the background brings luck. The Chi-Cheemaun proudly features two outdoor decks, an indoor lounge, a playground, an information kiosk, a little museum display, a cafeteria and a boutique. Good news, she’s air-conditioned!

Once the Chi-Cheemaun reaches land and the final round of driving is done, it’s time to open the cottage, turn the electricity and the water on, dispose of spent mice traps and open a bottle of Cab to cheer the sunset on the wooden dock. The overwhelmingly fresh air, edgy smell of a distant fire and 50 shades of red spread across the sky reflected in the waves made me think that the trip is a total success already.

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Take me down to the Paradise city

Where the sea so warm and rays are pretty…

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Maldives!

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In the age when traveling is all about reaching a destination – a trip to Maldives is a big bright adventure. Start with careful packing – think ridiculous bikinis, speedos, tuxedos and gowns (for after 6), as every second of the island life is a perfect photo-opportunity. Tip: the sun is killer – invest in serious sunblock (SPF 100) are cover-it-all swimwear for snorkeling. Fly high and keep your eyes open!

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The only downer on arrival is an endless queue at passport control. Business class passengers and families with kids are given a priority – use your time wisely and blend in with the right crowd 🙂

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Banyan Tree resort  is 20 minutes on a boat away from the airport, so after a breezy trip, a very quick and pleasant check in, one is ready to par-ty.

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Maldives is known for unforgettable, aquarium-like snorkeling and diving adventures.  Surrounding coral reefs are inhabited by all sort of creatures – rays, barracudas, exotic fish, turtles, sharks, octopus, girls in tight suits and so many, many more. Banyan Tree diving center provided masks and fins for no extra charge. Tip: ask for a life-jacket to wear on your snorkeling expedition for extra confidence and comfort (saves back from sun-burns too).

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The best part about the Banyan Tree resort – you can swim directly off the beach to discover the treasures of the Indian ocean. The water is slightly lower than a body temperature reflects all shadows of blue creating a fancy aquarium effect. Just jump in and keep your eyes open to be amazed. When the time comes to get onshore, there is so much to do and experience! Here is my selection of things you need to try at Banyan Tree.

1. Wake-up with the sun for a fragrant self-brewed coffee experience in a batik gown:

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2. Indulge in a non-sharable exotic breakfast:

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3. Walk on the softest white sand late in the afternoon and let the disappearing sun bronze your skin a little:

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4. Did not burn all the energy swimming? There is plenty of space on the island for all type of outdoor exercises, including energetic Zumba moves:

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Or questionable skipping:

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5. Spend evenings sipping refreshing cocktails (because you deserve an exotic Margarita). Keep an eye for happy hours:

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6. Sunbath. Literally:

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7. Participate in sting-rays feeding show or visit a real Marine Lab on the island and sponsor your own coral garden:

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8. Watch sunset and re-watch the sunset:

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9. Share your happy moment with the world – Instagram’em:

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10. Learn to cat-walk (a very helpful skill):

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11. Pick a new hobby – full moon, night-time photography for instance:

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The milky-way is just a mile away:

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12. Hide from early afternoon sunshine:

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There is plenty of shade at any time of the day:

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13. Enjoy the “golden-hour” in full glory:

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Never say good-bye. See you soon Maldives!

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